SHADOWS ON THE GRASS

“We have, I believe, forgone much by not acknowledging and seeking to acquire the African tribes’ dignity, wisdom and poetry,” wrote Karen Blixen in a letter to her brother, Thomas Dinesen, on August 8 1961. (Karen Blixen i Danmark. Breve 1931-62 – Karen Blixen in Denmark. Letters 1931-62, not translated into English). The dignity, wisdom and poetry of the Africans figure among the themes in Karen Blixen’s last book about her life in Africa, Shadows on the Grass, published on November 4 1960.

TITLES OF THE CHAPTERS:

  • 1 Farah
  • 2 Barua a Soldani
  • 3 The Great Gesture
  • 4 Echoes from the Hills

Two of the chapters had been published earlier. A slightly different version of “Farah” had appeared in Nationaltidende, 1948, with the title “Portrait of a Gentleman”. Two years later Karen Blixen made a Danish radio broadcast of “Farah” and that same year it appeared as an independent publication. An earlier version of “The Great Gesture” was printed in the weekly magazine Alt for Damerne, 1957.

”FARAH”
“Farah” is about Farah Aden, Karen Blixen’s Somali household steward during her years in Africa, and the master-servant “covenant” that bound them together. It is both a “portrait of a gentleman” and a warm tribute to a man who, just like the wild animals of Africa, stood “in direct contact with God”. Moreover, Farah possessed a quality that was high on Karen Blixen’s scale of values – “fearlessness”.

“Barua a Soldani” means “letter from a king”. It is a story about a letter Karen Blixen received from King Christian X as thanks for a lion-skin she had sent him. Arriving to inspect a woodland clearance one day, she finds that a young African from the Kikuyu tribe has had one of his legs crushed under a felled tree and is in great pain. As she does not have any morphia with her, she decides to place the King’s letter on the young Kikuyu’s chest and tell him that a letter from a king “will do away with all pain”. It works, and from that day onward the King’s “miracle-working” letter becomes part of her medicine stock and is used so often that it gradually becomes, as the author tells us, “brown and stiff with blood and matter of long ago”.

IMAGINATION & REALITY
King Christian X’s letter is today in the Karen Blixen archives, in a good state of repair and unblemished. The disparity between the story and the letter’s actual condition throws up many issues about the relationship between reality and tale – as with the relationship between Letters from Africa and Out of Africa. The crucial point is not whether and how Karen Blixen used the actual letter, but that it inspired her to write a story about the power of myth or belief.

The chapter “Echoes from the Hills” is about Karen Blixen’s parting with Africa and her later attempt to keep in contact with the people on the farm. The title refers to a section in the chapter “Farewell to the Farm” in Out of Africa. The section concludes: “This was clearly not the hour for coddling, and they had chosen to connive at my invocation of it. Great powers had laughed to me, with an echo from the hills to follow the laughter…”